Tenn. Senate speaker on Durham: 'I'd like to smack him in the mouth'

Friday, July 15, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 29

NASHVILLE (AP) - A state representative accused of sexually harassing at least 22 female interns, lobbyists, staff members and political workers does not represent the current culture of the Legislature, Tennessee Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey declared on Thursday.

"I'd like to smack him in the mouth," Ramsey said when asked about Rep. Jeremy Durham's behavior.

An Attorney General's report details how the Republican lawmaker constantly pursued women for drinks, tried to get them to meet him alone, and sometimes grabbed, hugged and kissed them.

According to excerpts read aloud by Democratic women at a news conference, one former political worker told investigators that when she was 20, Durham plied her with a cooler full of beer and then had sex with her in his office.

A female lobbyist nicknamed him "Pants Candy" after Durham rummaged in his pocket and suggestively offered her a dirty, unwrapped mint. Others said he sent them late-n ight, suggestive text messages, and said he seemed to be "fishing" to see how far he could go, describing him as "creepy," and giving them "ick feelings."

And one legislative clerk recalled how Durham said "Welcome to Capitol Hill" when she rebuffed his request for drinks, saying he was married and she was engaged.

"That's not the image of Capitol Hill. That's the image of one person," Ramsey said.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini called on House Speaker Beth Harwell and her Republican supermajority to work immediately to oust Durham from the General Assembly.

Harwell didn't immediately respond Thursday, but has said the voters should decide Durham's fate.

Ramsey was careful not to fault his House colleague's handling of the situation. But he did criticize other representatives who knew about Durham's harassment and did nothing. Their interactions are detailed in the report, although their names are redacted.

"They should have turned him in," Ramsey said. "I fault them for that."

Many of the women told investigators they did not want to make a formal complaint against Durham for fear of losing their jobs or facing other retaliation. Formal investigations of Durham's conduct only began after a January report in The Tennessean newspaper.

Durham's attorney Bill Harbison has said the investigation is "politically motivated, unfair and unconstitutional." He also criticized the fact that all the witnesses in the report were given Jane Doe and John Doe pseudonyms to protect their anonymity.

Durham has resisted calls from GOP leaders to resign his seat and is running for re-election in November. Early primary voting begins Friday.

Harwell has called his behavior "repulsive" but stopped short of calling a special session of the legislature to consider an ouster.

The House committee investigating Durham, meanwhile, has said any ouster would only last until November and not be bi nding on the next General Assembly, which meets in January.

Ramsey said a special session would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and probably not be necessary because he does not expect Durham to be re-elected. But if he is, "I'll call Beth Harwell and say, 'I think it's time for a special session,'" he said.

Ramsey said he was meeting with Harwell Thursday to discuss adopting a new sexual harassment policy. He said he hopes women working at the Capitol will be more willing to come forward to report sexual harassment from now on, after seeing that their anonymity can be protected.